Racial intimidation

KKK-like incidents are being investigated at Grand Haven High School.
Krystle Wagner
Mar 3, 2013

 

A series of race-related incidents at Grand Haven High School are at the center of ongoing federal and criminal investigations.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is examining incidents that have occurred this school year. The incidents, characterized by a parent of a biracial student as “racial intimidation,” involve KKK-like apparel and a racial slur written on a school bus window.

A separate criminal investigation into the window incident is also ongoing.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Keith Konarska said he finds any type of racially insensitive behavior to be unacceptable, and that the school district is fully cooperating with investigators.

“Our expectations for our students are far greater,” Konarska said.

KKK-inspired incidents

The string of racially-motivated incidents began in September 2012.

As freshman Katie Bridgeforth waited for a bus after school on Homecoming Friday, she said a student wore a KKK-like white mask outside the high school’s doors.

Bridgeforth said fellow students asked the teen wearing the mask how he would feel if he were black and saw the mask, but he defended his actions by saying it was freedom of speech.

When the 15-year-old first told her mom about the incident, Lisa Hall said she couldn’t believe this would occur in this community, in this day and age.

After contacting the school with her concerns, Hall said she viewed the school’s surveillance video with her husband’s cousin and one of the school’s assistant principals, Pamela Vanderkamp.

From the footage, Hall said she could see the student wearing a mask. She then saw another student punch the mask-wearing student as a crowd gathered around the two.

“It was surreal to see,” she said.

Grand Haven High School Principal Tracy Wilson confirmed that the incident did occur, but said she was unaware if a fight broke out afterward. She added that no adults saw the event unfold.

Wilson said they became aware of the incident after Hall called the school.

Shortly after Homecoming, Bridgeforth said she and a friend overheard a conversation between two other female students on the bus ride home.

Bridgeforth said she overheard a girl say the world would be a better place if all African-Americans went back to Africa and all Hispanics went back to Mexico.

Wilson said that snippet of conversation could have stemmed from a classroom history lesson.

Another incident occurred in October, Bridgeforth said, when a student at lunch wore a dunce-like paper hat with cursive letters “KKK” written on it.

Wilson said that story has changed many times. Wilson said her interview with the Tribune was the first she heard of the hat having “KKK” written in cursive on it.

The school’s policy is strictly no hats, whether it is a winter hat or baseball cap.

Wilson said one of the school’s assistant principals, Michael Roberson, was in the cafeteria and saw a sailor-like hat from across the room, but when he looked back the student no longer wore the hat.

After reviewing the surveillance videos, school officials weren’t able to identify the student involved. Wilson said the cafeteria has containers that food comes in, which might be what a student wore upside down atop his head.

“That’s what it appears to be,” Wilson said.

Following the incident, Hall said she filed a sheriff’s report, and also complained to the U.S. Department of Education, sparking the investigation.

More recently, in early February, Bridgeforth said she and her friend were the direct subjects of harassment as they rode Bus No. 1 home from school.

“Look at those n-----s over there,” Bridgeforth said, recalling some of the dialogue used by the male students. “I’ll give you $5 if you (have sex with) one of them.”

Bridgeforth said the conversation continued with the group of five boys asking if they would ever date a black person, to which another student singled out Bridgeforth and her friend by saying, “No, they have nappy hair.”

“I can’t believe people have the guts to say that to somebody,” Bridgeforth said.

Hall said she watched the bus surveillance video, and could see the interaction between the girls and the boys. Immediately after that confrontation, her daughter laid her head in her lap until the bus reached her stop.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see it,” she said.

Although the bus’ surveillance video lacks sound and provides a grainy image, Wilson said she could tell it was an uncomfortable conversation based on the body language and reaction of the girls putting their heads down.

Wilson said their whole demeanor wasn’t confident, and that it was awful to watch, knowing some of the things that were said.

“I don’t know how they didn’t punch someone in the face,” Wilson said.

During the school’s investigation of the Bus No. 1 incident, the principal said they received further information about a student who wrote a racial slur on the bus window the day before.

Wilson said the slur was written backward on a steamed-up window on the side of the bus so passing cars could read it. 

Freshman Patrick Gardner said he was called into the office by assistant principal Vanderkamp a few days after the most recent incident and was accused of writing, “Kill all n-----s” on the bus window.

When Gardner insisted on his innocence, he said he was told that he could be suspended for up to three days if he wrote the racial slur and another seven if he lied about it.

Wilson confirmed Vanderkamp met with Gardner because a student named and identified him as the writer, and she pressed the issue because students often immediately claim their innocence.

Although Wilson wouldn’t disclose what was written on the window because it’s under investigation, she did say that the writing was inappropriate and did not contain the word “kill.”

Upon reviewing the bus surveillance footage, Wilson said they were able to determine Gardner did not write the slur and another student did.

Gardner’s mother, Megan Rohn, said the event was disheartening because her younger son, who is biracial, will most likely go through the same kind of intimidation some day.

“Something or someone has influenced them to feel that way about other races,” Rohn said.

Bridgeforth said the incidents have left her feeling unwanted, unsafe, angry and misunderstood.

“I should be Caucasian if I want to live here,” she said.

School investigations

While Wilson said five students received disciplinary measures related to the incidents, she declined to share specific details because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Generally speaking, she said that students who participate in these sorts of incidents are disciplined via the school’s harassment and bullying policy.

If an action is intentionally focused on an individual or group, the consequences are steeper because there is a victim.

The school uses both in-school and out-of-school suspensions starting at three days, although it depends on the severity of the incident. Wilson said they try to be consistent when disciplining students, but they do take into account whether a student has been in trouble previously.

“These are kids,” Wilson said. “They’re going to make mistakes.”

In addition to the school’s internal investigation into the incidents, the two other agencies’ investigations remain open.

Judy Mulder, chief of the West Ottawa Prosecuting Attorney Division, confirmed there is an ongoing criminal investigation regarding the racial slur written on the bus window.

Based on the law, Mulder said there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the threat would be carried out, but her office is looking into whether other acts were committed by the same individual, which could result in stalking charges.

Ottawa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Valerie Weiss, who oversees the School Resource Deputy Program, said the department is involved in the prosecutor’s investigation and couldn’t elaborate on the investigation until it is closed. 

The Tribune submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department seeking the incident reports. A clerk said the department is processing the request, and declined to provide those public records.

Mulder said she couldn’t immediately recall exactly what was written on the bus window, but that it was racial.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been conducting an investigation since Dec. 6, which was initiated by Hall’s Oct. 21 complaint.

Hall said she felt the school has been negligent in how officials handled the incidents and that the incidents haven’t been appropriately dealt with as yet.

“My daughter deserves justice,” Hall said. “So do the other kids who have been bullied.”

Konarska responded to the family’s concern by saying that school officials take these issues seriously.

“We’ve worked very hard to put in place a broader understanding of issues of diversity and an appropriate response,” he said.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, wouldn’t say much about the nature or status of the investigation, other than to confirm that there is a case against the school district involving a racial harassment complaint.

Bradshaw said they don’t discuss details of investigations, but there is an allegation that the district violated civil rights laws, specifically Title 6 prohibiting discrimination of race, color and national origin. 

“It is currently under investigation,” he said.

When Konarska received the investigation notification, he said he was “obviously concerned.”

“But I understood the reason for the complaint and hope that we can benefit from the third-party review,” he said.

Konarska declined to comment on what types of information the district provided the agency during its investigation.

“It’s ongoing and we’re just cooperating in every way possible,” he said.

When asked if the Tribune could see the video surveillance of the incidents or get copies of any correspondence related to the incidents, Konarska declined to produce the public records without a FOIA request. A FOIA request was immediately presented, at which time Konarska said they’d process it. 

Facing tough issues

Following the February bus incidents, Wilson said she contacted the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance for its assistance in providing a proactive, instead of reactive, stance on these sorts of issues.

Andre Daley, the diversity group’s associate executive director, said he’s working to create additional diversity training for staff and students.

Daley said the group has collaborated with Grand Haven schools for several years. The agency and school are now working on training specific to how teachers can break down barriers and help create welcoming environments.

Through the new programming, students should learn strategies to speak up and speak out. They should also learn what to do when racist behavior happens, why it happens and how it can be prevented.

Daley said it’s about deepening the understanding of racial biases.

“That’s what’s going to break down that cycle,” he said.

Students who are being disciplined for bullying or negative behavior directed at people of other ethnicities will also be required to participate in diversity education.

Wilson said they want to make sure the school is proactive and that all of the diversity education efforts are meaningful.

“It needs to be intentional and sustainable,” Wilson said.

In the meantime, a quiet biracial girl at Grand Haven High School waits for a time when she feels welcome at the school.

Bridgeforth said she feels like it’s her against the school, and she makes sure she has friends walk with her to class to try to avoid further confrontations.

“I just hope everybody just accepts us more,” she said. “They’re not really accepting.”

 

Comments

whateveridonteven

being ignorant can also be a form of racism. But it is not inherently racism.

breezyd

thank you!!!
point made.

CancerHater82512

I believe kids are doing this. This is my freshman year and i already get food thrown at me in the cafeteria, snow thrown at me the minute I walk out side and things said to me in the main office, and guess what not one adult has stood up and said anything even if they hear it or see it. I wouldn't be surprised if this doesn't get fixed. I wouldn't be surprised if their just saying things for publicity. but who know. I know I hate grand haven even if I've been living here all my life.

breezyd

are you black?

Woodrow

What a bunch of "much ado about nothing". Negro flash mobs all over this country are beating white folks, and the media says nothing, and police don't even make arrests much less call them hate crimes. But, there's going to be an investigation into this pidding nonsense.

Grand Haven has always been a white community. The reason people live in GH is because they don't want to be around the negro violence in Muskegon and GR. Do you really want the diversity you all talk about? Then bus some Blacks in from Muskegon Heights. See the violence first hand.

You all ought to thank God GH is the way it is, instead of making all these hypocritical protestations. Don't wish for diversity because the ultimate state of diversity is chaos.

lalaland

I moved to Grand Haven to be near the water not to be segregated. Diversity is what made the USA so great, just now diversity means people of color.

proudparent3

What a perfect example of what that young lady is facing. The reason most people live in Grand Haven is the water! In my case it was to get away from the violence in Holland. Guess what, the violence there was caused by Caucasians! So explain that to the theory so stated here! Living here has nothing to do about staying away from that. I lived in Muskegon as well, and my daughter attended school there. She's Caucasian, and was bullied by Caucasian. Again, against the theory stated. Come here, and she's bullied by biracial... again, against the theory stated..... i

HavenDude

This video sums up my response to this post : http://youtu.be/5hfYJsQAhl0

GHJames

A hundred years ago you could have replaced the word "negro" with "Irish", "Italian", or "Jew" in your statements and they would all have been generally acceptable. Thank God our country has made progress. Woodrow is just running about 60 years behind.

msdd626

And it's people like you, Woodrow, that will keep the hate cycle going. So, so sad!

Mystic Michael

I see that Grand Haven remains that same "paragon of tolerance and enlightenment" it was when when I moved out of the area some 30 years ago. During the Sixties and Seventies, when I was growing up there, much of the elitism & snobbery was reserved for anyone who wasn't of Dutch descent...I suppose because nearly everybody was white, so there wasn't much basis for any ginned-up racial discrimination. Now that the area is apparently becoming more demographically diverse, bigotry based on race has become just the latest low-hanging fruit.

Do kids learn these attitudes from their parents, and from their elders in general? Duh. From whom else? Some things never change.

I've been away for a long time. And I have to admit: Every once in awhile, there's something in me that would love to return to the slower-paced life of my youth, with the greater sense of community, order, cleanliness & peace that Grand Haven provides. The unfortunate darker side of that package is the social & cultural insularity - and the resultant smugness - that develops when a town seals itself off from the outside world, too much for too long.

I believed it then, I believe it even more now: My home town could use a good, hard slap of reality from the outside world once in awhile. It might help some of the people who really need it, to better appreciate what a good thing they truly have. It might induce some of them to be nicer people, even to become more humble.

Mystic Michael
New York, NY

Lanivan

Your comment resonates with me, MM. Over many years, I have lived in many different states, in towns as small as quaint, rural fishing villages to thriving metropolises. My experience is that a certain degree of insularity can be found everywhere - if you look hard enough. And every town has some degree of that darker side - whether it be racism or some other kind of elitism.

Grand Haven, like all the other communities, has it's own unique blend of pros and cons - no worse or better than the others. My kids had a charmed youth, growing up here and getting a great education in the GH school system. But the universal prejudices they encountered in this community could have easily been transplanted to every other community I have lived in.

Back to the Wall

Michael,
We had a good hard slap about 5 years ago when a couple of fellows from the outside world decided to rob a jewelry store one afternoon and left two corpses downtown.

Mystic Michael

And one unfortunate outcome of such an incident as that - beyond the tragic loss of life and loss of property - is that there are those who will seize upon it as a justification to become even more insular, even more xenophobic than before. I know my people.

Becoming more open to the outside world carries risks. For that matter, life itself carries risks. I still say that the net effect is far more positive than negative. I still say that, all things considered, it is far healthier and far more productive to be cosmopolitan than to be provincial.

MM

Speranza

Perhaps a visit is in order and maybe, you could lead the way towards a more diverse city!

msdd626

Well said MM..........well said!

michigander

Hey, it seems I remember something about the guy with the lawn chair hanging from his tree. Well, folks, maybe he is now a high school science tutor (you know, newton's laws).

chasingsunsets

The lawn chair was political, not racial.

whateveridonteven

it was a political statement but it could have also been seen as a racial statement pertaining to how you perceived what the man meant.

in any regard, to put a lawn chair out as a political statement that he was voting republican was just dumb.

TheTrueFacts

As a current student at Grand Haven High School, I can say Tracey Wilson is an exceptional principle.

First off, the "comments" of Mrs. Wilson have been taken completely out of context. Krystle Wagner, of the Grand Haven Tribune, picked apart Wilson's words to create the image that Grand Haven's Principle supports violence, when in fact there was so much more to what she had to say. Take a second to think, then you would realize she's trying to say we have to stand up for ourselves. At some point in our live's we have pull the cord from our parents and advocate for ourselves.

Second, the student(s) that are responsible for the actions and racial slurs should not represent that rest of the student body... Grand Haven as a whole is very excepting, while yes, there are a select few who's actions are completely unacceptable, the rest of the student body fully respects every race. The students responsible should not be let off easy and should accept the consequences for their actions and made an example of how not to be...

Third, before people cast their judgment against these kids, they should realize that is what this is all about... Judgment and discrimination.

GrandHavenTaxpayers

How do you know the comments were taken out of context? No one disputes Ms. Wilson's leadership qualities. Even exceptional people make comments that need clarification or retraction.

While I agree that most of the students at GHHS are, in fact, accepting of those who are different, I believe it is the administration's position to hold high standards for the entire student body. No one should resort to violence. High school is supposed to prepare students for lives as adults. There are many facets to this, but accepting 'hitting in the face' in reaction to alleged bullying is not one of them.

I applaud your boldness in commenting on this story. However, your faulty grammar and spelling obscure the meaning and weight of your opinion.

wmugrad

First of all Wilson's quotes WERE chopped up and taken out of context. The tribune does it frequently not reporting entire stories!

Second this young person is simply stating how they feel about the situation and the school community as a whole and you have to point out the spelling and grammar errors! Way to go at making someone feel bad.

proudparent3

I have graduated from Grand Haven and can say it has gotten worse since Grimes is no longer principal. You students are getting away with a lot more than I ever seen! But I guess that's the difference in generations. We were TAUGHT respect and you think you should just receive it! I believe 100 percent that what was quoted is what was said! Explain how a parapro got injured during a fight last year after a football game against Muskegon and a group of students jumped our students? It never even hit the paper! So I'm proud to see this parent and student are taking a stand to let people see the truth about that school! My own child was bullied by a biracial child and the schools did nothing!

unclejoe

Well said and kudos for the courage to opine. There will always be those who will pick apart your words when they can't dispute your message.

proudparent3

And to which message are you congratulationg because if it is that of the students, then maybe you should talk to a lot of the high school students.

WestMIweather

TrueFacts,
Please don't allow anyone's negative comments or arrogant slams on your written word to deter you to continue to speak up and out for what you believe in. I applaud your action.

whateveridonteven

I think she's a terrible principal. The one before her was better. She doesn't have a clear understanding of the whole of the student body.

ConcernedparentinGH

GHAPS definitely look out for their own, and not just white Caucasians. They peg kids as "bad" and don't give them the benefit of the doubt once that's been done. There's no objectivity. If they are "good" kids, then they didn't mean it, they didn't understand what they were doing, blah blah blah. What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

proudparent3

What these kids are doing is not trying to be funny, excuse me their high school students! You learn all throughout elementary not to talk like that and discriminate! No they were doing worse! They were acting like our ancestors in the south! No apologies or excuses for them! They KNEW what they were saying and doing!

rainbowjoe

This incident is not an indictment of Grand Haven High School or of this community. Grand Haven is an exceptional high school and it produces many exceptional students, and the vast majority are fine young men and women. When kids are young and dumb, it follows that they do dumb things. The few students responsible for this harassment need to be educated and held accountable for their actions, but because race is involved doesn't mean they have to be subjected to hysterical overreaction. We expect and trust that our GHHS teachers and administrators will respond to this matter appropriately, so let them do their jobs. Why the need for bureaucrats and outside meddlers to become involved? I trusted the GHHS staff with my kids for four years, and they were nothing short of superb, and my trust in them continues.

Pages

 

Post a Comment

Log in to your account to post comments here and on other stories, galleries and polls. Share your thoughts and reply to comments posted by others. Don't have an account on GrandHavenTribune.com? Create a new account today to get started.